The following is the twelfth of a series of excerpts from The Rowan Tree: A Novel by Robert W. Fuller. The complete novel is available for Kindle and for other ebook formats. A print edition can also be ordered from Amazon. Enter the Goodreads Giveaway contest for a free copy of the paperback edition. The author welcomes your comments. If you enjoy The Rowan Tree, please write a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog!
From a solitary chair at center stage, Rowan watched the crowd settle into the pews. After a few minutes he walked to the podium, detached the microphone and stood looking out until all eyes were on him and the room was utterly still. He acknowledged a few friends with a nod but couldn’t spot Easter.
“Two years ago Jefferson College was in turmoil. Standing in this very spot I realized that you were serious about reform, and we’ve been working together since then to bring it about.
“The changes we’ve proposed are fundamental, not cosmetic. Everyone in the Jefferson community will be affected.
“Our predecessors helped open people’s eyes to the immorality of segregation by race and by gender. The proposals we’re making—to recognize students as adults, to create a multiracial Jefferson, and to achieve parity for women—give new meaning to our namesake’s proposition that ‘All are created equal.’
“In addition, we’re proposing a new and equally far-reaching commitment. These reforms will make access to Jefferson College independent of class as well as race, religion, and gender. It will not be easy to reach this goal, but we’re asking the College to embrace it.
“Colleges like Jefferson hold special places in our hearts because they change us in ways no other institutions do. Over the four years you spend here, there’s a transmission of mind, from teacher to student, that marks the birth of your adult selves. It is your teachers, the faculty of Jefferson College, who embody its cultural traditions, and who pass them on to future generations. And it is to these custodians of our ideals that we must look for leadership in times of crisis. I know we can count on Jefferson’s faculty to reassert the College’s historic role as a leader in educational innovation, excellence, and equal opportunity.”
Here Rowan paused to add weight to what he was about to say.
“I know that some of you think I see Jefferson merely as a steppingstone.”
He searched their faces. Every eye returned his gaze.
“I’d be lying if I said I wanted to spend the rest of my life here. These days a typical college president lasts about as long as an undergraduate, and that seems long enough to me.” He waited for a ripple of laughter to subside.
“But as long as these initiatives are tied to my presidency, speculation about my ambitions clouds the real issues. If you choose to go forward, I want you to do it for yourselves. From this moment on, this plan is yours, not mine. I want the faculty to be able to endorse the proposals without endorsing me as president.
“Accordingly, I propose to separate the College’s future from my own. Next week, after the faculty has rendered its verdict on the new direction embodied in the commission’s report, I shall call for two votes of confidence—one from the student body and one from the faculty. Lacking the support of either constituency, I will resign.”
He stood silently for a few seconds. He felt that a weight had been lifted from him, that his job was done. As he turned to leave, he saw Easter off to one side. With a beautiful smile, she flashed him a thumbs-up.
A week after Rowan’s speech, the faculty, by a slim majority, adopted most of the commission’s core proposals. The most controversial of them—to cap costs, which would have required changes in the College calendar—was handled in the time-honored way: It was referred to a committee for further study.
The Jeffersonian heralded the reforms on diversity, electives, and governance, and ran an editorial praising the termination of the College’s practice of surrogate parenthood: “At last the dormitory rooms we pay for are really ours. It’s about time the faculty admitted that it has no right to impose its Victorian-era morality on us. Even the U. S. Constitution now gives us the vote.”
Rowan could only marvel at how fast sexual mores had changed. As a student, he and his then-girlfriend would have been summarily expelled if the dean had learned of their love life. Now, Jefferson was setting up coed dorms, and Life magazine was sending a photojournalist to get the story.
A few days after the faculty vote and before the double referenda on his presidency, Rowan left for New York to wait out the returns that would determine his future at Jefferson. He’d instructed the administrative staff to do nothing to influence the outcome.
Though the votes of confidence had seemed like a good idea at the time, he soon realized that a narrow victory in either constituency would actually be worse than a defeat. He needed two landslide victories or one outright rejection to be free—either to forge ahead with a mandate or return to private life.
There was never any doubt about the student vote. The reforms met virtually all their demands, and they were relieved and grateful. Though the media depicted students as enjoying sit-ins and demonstrations, the vast majority were eager to focus on their careers. Once their grievances were addressed, student activism petered out almost overnight.
The faculty referendum was another matter. The more Rowan thought about post-commission politics, the more he realized he’d given the faculty a way to cripple him. A thin victory would spare him the immediate humiliation of outright rejection, but it would consign him to a role he couldn’t tolerate much longer—fundraiser in chief.
When the provost called to congratulate him on getting 95 percent of the student vote and splitting the faculty down the middle, he realized that he had indeed been snared in a trap of his own making.
With two weeks remaining in the spring term, Rowan found himself office-bound, keeping appointments from dawn till dusk with potential funders, faculty leaving town for the summer or on sabbatical, and seniors just wishing to say goodbye.
He was caught off guard when a delegation from a new campus organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, stopped by to invite him and Sara to what they were advertising as the first openly gay dance on an American campus.
Rowan’s attitude toward gays had long been live and let live, and although he’d had gay friends, they’d been the exception in the straight circles in which he and Sara had moved. At a gay dance, the ratio would be reversed, and the thought made him uncomfortable.
Not willing to say no to the students, and not enthusiastic about attending, he wondered if Sara’s unavailability might provide a gracious way out.
“Sara’s based in New York. I doubt she can make it on such short notice.”
“No problem,” said the group’s leader. “It’s you we need.”
“Why, if I may ask?
“To legitimize us in the eyes of the College.”
“To do for us what you routinely do for other groups,” said a member of the delegation. “Show your support. Take a public stand. Give us the College’s blessing.”
“I see,” Rowan said. “I’m not much of a dancer, but…okay, I’ll come.”
“It begins at eight and should be in full swing by nine.”
“I’ll be there. But please don’t expect me to dance.”
“It’s a deal,” said their leader. “Things haven’t been easy for us here.”
“Not anywhere,” someone chimed in.
“We’re hoping it gets better for us at Jefferson after this. We appreciate your support more than we can say.”
Just before midnight on the eve of graduation, Rowan and Easter met outside the Archives. Rowan unlocked the door and, side-by-side, they climbed the stairs to the room where he’d written the most important speeches of his presidency.
Tomorrow, Easter’s status would change from student to alumna. Her parents would arrive in the morning and, immediately after the traditional post-graduation reception at the President’s House they would drive her to Chicago. The following day she would leave for Senegal and a summer of travel in Africa before taking up her Fulbright at Oxford in the fall.
Not making love on campus wasn’t the only rule they broke that night. Reversing their pattern of ‘love first, talk later,’ they surrendered to the finality of the occasion and talked late into the night.
“I hope you’re not going to give that Senegalese playboy another chance,” Rowan said, only half-joking. “That’s not why you’re going back to Dakar, is it?—to see the dashing Monsieur François Merle?”
“C’mon, Rowan. Dakar is the only place that has the records I need for my research. And Monsieur Merle has access. I’ll stay in the university dorms for a week or so, then move on to Ghana and Nigeria. I expect letters from you at every American Express office on my route.”
“They’ll be waiting for you.”
“And anyway, ‘Monsieur François Merle’”—she pronounced his name in an exaggerated French accent—“isn’t a playboy.”
“What is he then?”
“A gentleman who likes me, that’s all. You’re not jealous, are you?”
“Of course I am. Has he been in touch?”
“In response to my follow-up, he confirmed his offer to get me into the archives. Don’t worry about him, Rowan.”
“Okay, I won’t.” He paused to consider whether he should tell her about the invitation he’d received from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, and decided he should. After he’d recounted his meeting with the delegation, and admitted his ambivalence over the invitation, Easter said, “This won’t be the first time you’ve stuck your neck out, but I have to admit that just this once I’m glad we’re not a couple.”
Her confession brought laughter which eased Rowan’s qualms. When it had subsided, Easter added, “But, Rowan, I want you to know that I’m proud of you for everything you’ve done. We got most of what we wanted in the faculty vote. Jefferson will never be the same.”
After a long pause, Rowan said, “So, what’s next?”
“Tomorrow you meet my folks.”
“I’ve looked forward to that, but now that it’s about to happen, I’m nervous.”
“Sooner or later they’ll have to know about us. When I was living at home, I worried that they might catch on, but now I don’t care.”
“How about we tell them a year from now? We can post-date everything.”
“Oh, we could say that on a visit to Oxford I called to say hello. We began corresponding and one thing led to another. It’s better that our love life appear a few years younger than it actually is.”
She took his hand and continued, “If you do leave Jefferson while I’m at Oxford, we can take a flat there. You can read and write, and we’ll travel during my breaks.”
The tremor in her voice told him that she was already feeling their separation. Study and travel were exactly what he yearned for—and he couldn’t imagine anywhere he’d rather call home than a flat in Oxford.
“You know, Emily Dickinson was right. I feel like public life has turned me into a frog. When I do leave this job, I’ll need time to find myself.”
When, deep into the night, they ran out of talk and made love, it was tinged with melancholy. He kissed her on both cheeks and on the top of her head. She gave Rowan a goodbye hug and then turned away to hide her tears.
He listened as her footsteps receded down the stone stairs. When the outside door snapped shut, he peered through the screen of ivy covering the window and saw her disappear, then reappear as she passed beneath each of the lamps on the path leading across the dark, empty campus.
To be continued…